Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘New age’ Category

Yanni is coming back to India, but how many can really afford him?


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THAT memory is still vivid. In March 1997, I had visited the banks of the river Yamuna in Agra, to cover the much-awaited Yanni concert. With the glorious Taj Mahal in the backdrop, the setting seemed perfect, and I even ignored the mosquitoes that occasionally did marathons on my forearms.

Before the show, I was confused whether I was a Yanni fan or not. Yes, I had loved the ‘Live at the Acropolis’ album, but his studio albums were too elevator-friendly for my comfort. The show changed everything – for a while, at least.

Lavishly produced, it featured an immensely talented orchestra conducted by Armen Anassian. Violins, cellos, flutes, trumpets, French horns, guitars, basses, drums and the didgeridoo mingled magnificently on tracks like ‘Adagio in C Minor’, ‘Dance with a Stranger’, ‘Niki Nana’ and ‘Santorini’.

While Yanni’s keyboard unleashed its expected magic, violinist Karen Briggs was a revelation. The concert was held over the next two days, and easily, it was one of the best shows India has witnessed.

WITH this background, let’s welcome Yiannis Chryssomallis aka Yanni to India once again. In January, the ace Greek new age composer and musician will perform in Vadodara. Earlier this year, he played in India after 17 years, with shows in Chennai and Bangalore. Those who have missed him so far would want to attend his spectacle this time.

Sounds good? Yes and no. While the concert at Vadodara’s Laxmi Vilas Palace on January 23 promises to be musically-outstanding and larger than life, as is the case with most Yanni shows, there are two major bottlenecks. One is the astonishingly steep ticket fare, and the second revolves whether Yanni’s following in India is remotely as close it was in 1997.

The Chennai and Bangalore concerts didn’t come cheap either. In Chennai, the ticket denominations, from the lowest onwards, were ₹ 2,000, ₹ 3,000, ₹ 5,000, ₹ 8,000, ₹ 15,000 and ₹ 20,000. In Bangalore, they cost ₹ 2,500, ₹ 5,000, ₹ 8.000, ₹ 15,000 and ₹ 20,000.

If you thought that was expensive, check out Vadodara. Part of the four-day VadFest, or Vadodara International Art & Culture Festival, those attending will have to pay ₹ 5,000, ₹ 7,000, ₹ 10,000, ₹ 12,000, ₹ 20,000 or, hold your breaths, ₹ 75,000. Unless they are influential enough to get a free invite, that is.

Yanni is scheduled to play for about two hours. And going by the map of the venue, those with the cheapest tickets will probably be sitting a few kilometres away, watching the proceedings on a giant screen, if at all.

Considering that very few people want to go alone for such shows, and would want to go with their spouses or friends, the cost per individual will naturally multiply. For two people, that will mean ₹ 10,000.

The richer class may be able to afford such fares, but what about the middle-class fan or the student who would want to attend too? Unless no-one wants them in the crowd!

From the viewpoint of organisers, an event of Yanni’s scale would incur huge costs. The Agra show featured 40 musicians, and one would assume similar numbers will be utilised this time. Besides this, there will be personal managers, tour managers, sound engineering teams, lighting teams, set-designing teams and public relations agents, most of whom may come from abroad as they are familiar with Yanni’s requirements. Despite the presence of airline and hospitality sponsors, putting up so many people is a huge cost. On top of that, there are the artiste and crew fees.

Besides the people factor, we have costs related to setting up the show – the equipment, speakers, lights, sets, giant screens, caterers’ fees, beverage company expenses, etc, etc. One has to take taxes into account, and there are many sundry expenses which come up closer to the event. Yes, some of these finances may be offset through sponsors. But this isn’t like many other shows – the sheer scale will be much larger. It’s a different matter that acts like Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd made even grander appearances.

Keeping this in mind, the organisers may try to justify their decision to fix such high ticket rates. But then, who are they actually targeting? From the simple price structure, it’s obvious that a large number will attend just because they have the moolah, irrespective of whether they enjoy Yanni or not. Many of them may not even have heard of him before. The true fans may just dream of a telecast or watch it on DVD.

Another thing needs to be considered. When Yanni came to Agra in 1997, he was at his peak. His ‘Live at the Acropolis’ album had sold hugely across the world, and India was no exception. Even though the Agra shows had a large number of politicians, businessmen and richie-doodles in the crowd, there were a few fans who travelled from Delhi to watch him perform.

The Yanni phase lasted from late 1994, after ‘Acropolis’ was released, to about late 1997, when Yanni combined his shows at Agra and the Forbidden City, Beijing, to release the ‘Tribute’ album. He later played at the Kremlin, Moscow, and Burj Khalifa, Dubai, and though his studio albums did well on the new age charts, they never made it to the top of the overall Billboard charts. Even new age, as a genre, became stagnant after the 2000s.

Today, the world listens to lots of other music, with electronic dance music, modern rock, world music, fusion and ambient lounge attracting listeners. The term ‘new age’ was pretty fashionable in the second half of the 1990s, thanks to artistes like Yanni, Enigma, Enya, Bradley Joseph and Kitaro, but what affected the genre’s long-term popularity was that there was no set pattern of sound. Anything that sounded a little offbeat and unlike the common genres was described as new age, and very often, spiritually uplifting and religious chant-driven music was also placed in the same family.

In all fairness, Yanni’s shows may be still as spectacular as they were 17 years ago. Though the ambience may not have the same effect as the Taj Mahal or Acropolis or Kremlin, the quality of musicianship will undoubtedly be high, as many younger instrumentalists would have joined his troupe. Moreover, his brand of music is best enjoyed live, and not on CD or even DVD.

The question, of course, is: how many people can really afford the Vadodara show? And if they do, how many will comprise the right kind of people? Only those with enough money to throw around can dream of paying ₹ 20,000 to get a hundred yards close to Yanni, and ₹ 75,000 to smell his perfume, and then falsely boast that they shook hands with the man.

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Why Pink Floyd’s new album disappointed me


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IF I hadn’t grown up on the 1970s albums of Pink Floyd, I would have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I hadn’t spent so many hours listening to ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Animals’ and the better half of ‘Meddle’, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I wouldn’t have been mesmerised by instrumentals like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, ‘One Of These Days’, ‘On The Run’, ‘Any Colour You Like’, ‘Terminal Frost’ and ‘Signs Of Life’, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. Oh, if I hadn’t idolised David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and Syd Barrett, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’.

Now, it wouldn’t take a genius to realise that the latest Pink Floyd album, released almost two decades after its previous ‘The Division Bell’, isn’t on my list of favourites. At least, I wouldn’t give it four stars or five stars as many across the world have been doing, or hail it as the best piece of ‘ambient’ and ‘new age’ music created in centuries. On the other hand, I wouldn’t slam the effort totally, or give it a one-star rating like the reviewer of ‘The Independent’, London.

Reviews are more often than not subjective, and so it be with mine. Though a couple of tracks like ‘It’s What We Do’, ‘Anisina’, ‘Sum’ and ‘Calling’ definitely have the Floyd class, ‘The Endless River’ hardly moved me in toto. Yes, there are many instances of instrumental genius, but that’s a given in any Floyd album. On a generous day, I would settle for two and a half stars, and on a mean day, I would stick to two.

Before listing down my main problems with ‘The Endless River’, here’s a small brief about the album. Released as a tribute to Wright, who passed away in 2008, it contains 17 instrumental tracks and one vocal number. Most tunes fall in what is described as the ‘ambient’ category, though some of them have the quintessential psychedelic rock bearings that Floyd popularised four decades ago.

My main issue with ‘The Endless River’ is that it just seems like a collage of sounds of the past. Gilmour’s guitar riffs, Wright’s keyboard effects and Mason’s drumming patterns have mostly been heard before, often reminding you of portions from ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side’, ‘The Division Bell’ and ‘Meddle’. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that half the pieces sound like ‘Signs of Life’, the opening track of ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ has been dumped into a mixer-grinder and hurled around to create many splinter tunes.

Secondly comes the album’s format itself. Over the years, though Floyd has released instrumental tunes here and there, especially in early albums like ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’, ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and the ‘More’ soundtrack, it hasn’t done an out-and-out instrumental album. In the past, the wordless songs have come between the vocal ones, and have often provided some diversion to the overall effort. In the case of ‘The Endless River’, we have 17 instrumentals with more or less the same formula, making things sound monotonous.

Third, some of the Floyd instrumentals of yesteryears have been classics in their own right. The psychedelic wizardry of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ (from ‘The Pipers At The Gates of Dawn’), the double-tracked bass of ‘One of These Days’ (‘Meddle’), the infectiousness of ‘When You’re In’ (‘Obscured by Clouds’), the stunning effects of ‘On the Run’ (‘Dark Side’), the majestic build-up of ‘Any Colour You Like’ (‘Dark Side’ again), the jazz-filled saxophone splendour of ‘Terminal Frost’ (‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’) and the laidback elegance of ‘Cluster One’ (‘The Division Bell’) all give them a unique charm and character. The tunes of ‘The Endless River’ are pleasant on their own, but that X-factor so characteristic of Floyd is missing. The same is true for the vocal track ‘Louder Than Words’, which has a sound we have heard since the 1970s.

Next we come to the length of the tunes. Of the 18 cuts, nine are less than two minutes. And almost all these nine seem to be incomplete attempts at trying to do something and yet heading nowhere. The pieces start in trademark Floyd style, one hears a swanky riff somewhere, and just when you think the actual song is about to begin, it’s over. A related complaint has to do with the fact that most pieces have rather abrupt endings at a time when you’re just getting a hang of them.

Finally, there may be individually brilliant portions, but the sum just doesn’t add up. I can hear two or three tunes at a time, but beyond that, things drag. Half the time, I want to go back to earlier albums like ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side’, ‘Animals’ or even many people’s favourite ‘The Wall’. Surely, ‘Mother’, ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ and ‘Vera’ sounded leagues ahead.

Oh, if I had been born 30 years later than I was and had just been introduced to Floyd three months ago, I would have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I had been swayed by all this hype surrounding its release, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I had just believed in blindly following the latest fads, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’.

Take Five: The world of ‘classical crossover’


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In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. This time, in the second part, we shall talk of five artistes from the ‘classical crossover’ genre.

AMONG western classical purists, the term ‘classical crossover’ generally evokes negative reactions. Many of them, accustomed to formal concert settings and rigid musical rules, believe it is doing more damage than good to the genre. To figure out what bothers them so much, we need to first understand what this phrase actually means.

According to a common definition, ‘classical crossover’ artistes are those who use heavy influences or play popular tunes of western classical music, but do not follow the rules governing the genre. They dress up trendily, use modern instruments and render pop tunes, thus targeting a wider audience.

Within this genre, there is also something called ‘operatic pop’, which refers to singers who do opera songs in a modern manner, or sing pop songs in an operatic style. A related field is ‘symphonic rock’, where bands play rock songs in orchestral style, but that is marketed as a completely different genre, as its audience is totally different.

Obviously, all this is a direct contradiction to the very philosophy of western classical music. If one looks at the traditional form of the music, two features set it apart. To begin with, the musicians have to compulsorily play pieces the way the composers had written them. There is no question of even the slightest modification, or of introducing a personal style. Secondly, the atmosphere at classical shows is largely formal, whether it comes to the overall ambience, the dress codes of musicians or the behaviour of the audience. No matter how much the listener is moved by the music, one cannot clap between movements or even utter ‘Wow’ aloud.

Western classical music has its own beauty and charm, and contains some of the most haunting, romantic or powerful pieces ever written. But the entry of newer forms like jazz, pop and rock in the 20th century ensured that its market went down. Keeping this in mind, a section of musicians and music industry professionals thought of new ways to reach out to both the masses and to youngsters, using western classical music as a base. This was how ‘classical crossover’ was born, somewhere in the mid-1990s. Some people associate it with what was called ‘new age’ music.

In ‘classical crossover’, musicians may do some of the following things. They may adapt old classical pieces by adding drums, guitars or electronic instruments to make them sound peppier and more contemporary. They may compose modern and catchy tunes featuring classical instruments like the violin, viola, cello, harp or piano. They may take popular operatic arias and sing them without the frills, in a mass-oriented style. Or they may take pop songs and give them a classical treatment.

It’s not only in the music, actually. The musicians dress up fashionably, grow their hair any which way, appear in sensuous music videos, dance on stage and even encourage the audience to clap and shout during their performance.

To the purist, all this is complete blasphemy. Yet, slowly and steadily, the genre has attracted a following of its own, mainly comprising people who do not believe in rules and those who are not as musically knowledgeable as the more serious listeners. More than anything else, it has exposed people to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and the promoters of the genre believe that those who enjoy ‘classical crossover’ will eventually listen to the purer form.

Technically, the first successful ‘classical crossover’ album was violinist Vanessa-Mae’s ‘The Violin Player’, released in 1995. But prior to that, there were many efforts to bridge the gap between classical and pop.

When Luciano Pavarotti sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the song became so popular that it gave opera music a newer appeal. Similarly, pianist Richard Clayderman, though known more for doing versions of well-known pop songs, also played a few classical favourites in his own style.

Dutch violinist Andre Rieu took well-known classical compositions, including waltzes by Johann Strauss II, and gave them new orchestrations, besides adding entertainment and showmanship at his concerts. Greek composer Yanni composed many tunes that were rooted in the classical style, but were admired by those who liked popular music too. He was labelled a new age musician.

The success of Vanessa-Mae’s album, however, made the industry sit up and think. They looked for artistes who were ready to market and position themselves in a very modern manner, and also play orchestral music their own way.

In the past 17 years or so, many musicians have become part of the genre. Here, we list five artistes with whom one can begin, along with a little background. At the end, we shall name a few more, as recommended listening.

Vanessa-Mae: A British violinist of Far Eastern origin, Vanessa actually started off as a purely classical violinist, recording the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. Over time, she decided to blend techno music with classical violin, and released ‘The Violin Player’ in 1995. Most pieces on the album were new, but Vanessa also played Bach’s famous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’.

Her music was initially described as ‘techno-classical’ and even ‘violin techno-acoustic fusion’. But the huge success of ‘The Violin Player’ and the subsequent entry of other musicians with similar ideas led to the term ‘classical crossover’.

Vanessa later released albums like ‘Storm’, ‘Subject to Change’ and ‘Choreography’, the last one featuring Greek composer Vangelis and India’s very own A R Rahman on the tune ‘Raga’s Dance’. She has collaborated with pop artistes like Janet Jackson, George Michael and Prince, but hasn’t done a new recording in nine years.

Maksim: The pianist grew up in war-torn Croatia but never let anything affect his music studies. His began his recording career with ‘Gestures’, which contained the works of contemporary Croatian composers including the popular Tonci Huljic, but achieved international success with ‘The Piano Player’, where he improvised on pieces by well-known classical composers Handel, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His next album ‘Variations Parts 1 & 2’ had some traditional tunes from Croatia, besides variations of classical compositions by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Later albums like ‘A New World’, ‘Electrik’ and ‘Pure’ have used similar combinations, and one of his best pieces is his adaptation of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, where he has used many other instruments too.

Bond (in picture on top):  An all-girl British-Australian string quartet, Bond rose to fame in 2000 with its debut album ‘Born’. Interestingly, the album was removed from the classical charts as traditionalists felt it was too pop. But it became popular because of some tunes composed by Croatian Tonci Huljic (specially ‘Victory’) and a modern version of Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’.

Consisting of two violinists, one viola player and one cellist, Bond was known for its fashionable stage costumes, energetic live performances and trendy videos like ‘Explosive’. It has also released the albums ‘Shine’ (which included a string version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’), ‘Classified’ and ‘Play’, which includes rearrangements of classical composer Vivaldi and a crossover version of A R Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’ from the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Andrea Bocelli: An operatic tenor, the blind Bocelli has practised both classical and pop territories with equal passion, and has played a major role in popularising ‘operatic pop’.

On the classical side, the Italian’s album ‘Sacred Arias’ is a huge success among those who follow spiritual music. He’s also released many full-length operas on CD, but albums like ‘Bocelli’, ‘Sogno’, ‘Andrea’, ‘Amore’ and ‘Passione’ reflect his crossover side. Among other songs, his versions of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and the standard ‘Autumn Leaves’, and his duet with Celine Dion on ‘The Prayer’ have added to his mass following.

Sarah Brightman: British actress and singer Sarah Brightman has established herself as the biggest selling soprano of all time. Besides English, she has rendered songs in various European languages, Chinese and Japanese.

Married to and divorced from renowned composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Brightman first earned fame on the stage, specially with the musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. She actually released a few crossover albums before Vanessa-Mae, including the well-known ‘Dive’, but her fame as a singer expanded hugely after 1995 with consistent live performances and new releases. Her albums ‘La Luna’, ‘Harem’ and ‘Symphony’ are considered among the best in the genre, and she’s currently working on her latest venture ‘Dreamchaser’, due for release in April.

Besides these five artistes, one can try out violinists Catya Mare and Lindsey Stirling, pianist Myleene Klass, singers Romina Arena and Katherine Jenkins, and the operatic pop vocal group Il Divo. There’s also singer Josh Groban, who besides many easy listening numbers, dabbles in crossover.

These are good enough to begin with, but as mentioned before, appreciation of ‘classical crossover’ depends on how open your mind is to experimentation. It’s relatively a new genre, and may take a few more years to be really established.

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